Even in wealthy Pitkin County, poverty is a concern

Look at Pitkin County through the lenses of the economy, and its labor force appears to be humming along.

The county’s unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in 2015 compared with 8.1 percent in 2010. Per capita income was $112,909 in 2014 compared with $34,235 in 1970. And there were 23,586 jobs in 2014 compared with 4,463 in 1970.

These are signs of a sound, steady economy. But according to Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, there’s one statistic that isn’t getting the attention, concern or scrutiny it warrants: the poverty level.

An estimated 4,500 individuals, or 25 percent of the county’s population, are struggling to make ends meet with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Peacock told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors at a retreat held Tuesday at Aspen Square Hotel.

That income level represents maximum annual earnings of $23,760 for an individual and $48,600 for a family, according to federal poverty guidelines, which are used to determine the eligibility of people for such programs as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, among other cost-assistance offerings.

“We’ve got great prosperity indicators, strong employment,” Peacock said. “We’ve got strong population growth, income growth and decreasing unemployment — typically stuff you look for in prosperity in the community. It’s all good until we scratch deeper.”

The county’s workforce also isn’t prospering as a whole, Peacock noted. The county’s per capita income of $112,909 might look good on paper, but the average salary of $49,460 treads below the average pay in Denver, the state, and nationwide (see factbox above). And free-market housing costs more than triple the national average, he said.

City Manager Steve Barwick, who also attended the meeting, said unreported cash income such as tips might skew the data, but he didn’t dispute the overall picture that a chunk of the county’s labor force is financially challenged.

“Does it catch under-the-table tips? No, this is reported income,” Peacock said.

The upper valley’s high cost of living, Peacock conceded, is nothing new.

But, he noted, “Things have changed so much in our economy in the last 30 years, I’m not sure all of our policy discussions have kept pace. That’s on us as a community.”

The chief concern for Peacock is how the county sustains its labor force that earns lower wages and pays higher for housing.

“We have lots of boats rising in our community,” Peacock said, “but we have boats rising at a really different rate and different levels, and that plays into affordability.”

Peacock said his data was based on statistics gleaned from the county, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor.

In the meantime, the trend of the county and city’s workforce relocating downvalley forges on, effectively stressing the local transportation system, Peacock said. And while the county’s population grew 178 percent from 1970 to 2014, job growth swelled by 438 percent.

“Is it feasible to provide affordable housing for this growing workforce?” Peacock asked, adding that the 6,000 to 7,000 workers who accounted for Pitkin County’s 23,586 jobs in 2014 resided in the county.

“How do we crack that nut? Do we move the jobs? Do we mess with transportation? Do we develop housing? These are critical questions we are trying to answer as a community, and I think we need to have more robust conversations around it.”

Barwick said the city is doing its part when it comes to employee housing.

“The city is the only (Roaring Fork Valley) entity with a major housing program,” he said. “And that’s not going to suffice in the long term in this valley.”

Barwick pointed out that roughly one-half of Aspen’s 2,900 employee-housing units were built by the city, while the private sector built the other half through either mitigation requirements or voluntarily.

“Those who have built them and own them, as you know, are in better shape than those who have not. So they’ve got a leg up as wages continue to spiral,” Barwick said.

Another factor that could come into play is the so-called gig economy that is based on off-payroll employees who work as independent contractors, said The Aspen Institute’s Cristal Logan, who is director of the think tank’s Aspen Community Programs. The gig economy can include those who work for apps such as Uber, or they can be graphic designers, carpenters, photographers or writers, among other skill-specific positions.

Long pointed to a study by Intuit forecasting that 40 percent of American workers will work in the gig economy by 2020.

“The gig economy isn’t new, but what is new is the prevalence of this trend,” she said, noting that arguments against the gig economy primarily focus on “it’s another way to exploit the poor” by not giving them benefit packages and other incentives that might come with a full-time job.

What does the gig economy mean to the valley? It’s a question Logan couldn’t immediately answer, but she said it’s important to keep an watchful eye on the trend and how it impacts local employers and employees in the future.